I sincerely hope that the bacon bra does not cause cancer, no matter how much nibbling one does. Mystery of the meat-eaters’ molecule explores the recent revelation that humans, unlike all other primates, do not produce the molecule Neu5Gc and that when we eat certain animal products, our bodies attack the introduction of the molecule (in the meat) like it’s an invader. Not good. Check it out:
The story began in 1984, when Prof Varki was working at the University of California, San Diego. When treating a woman with bone-marrow failure, he injected her with horse serum. The treatment carried the risk of a side effect called “serum sickness”, in which the patient’s immune system launches an attack on a molecule present in the serum called Neu5Gc.
Sure enough, her skin erupted with an itchy red rash. Investigating further, Prof Varki found that Neu5Gc was foreign to humans, even though we carry a very similar version of the same molecule – which may be one reason why animal-to-human organ and tissue transplants do not work well.
But in recent years, he has come to believe that the implications of this molecular difference are much wider. He has built up a range of evidence that potentially links Neu5Gc, a so-called sialic acid, to chronic disease.
This is because the animal version is absorbed by humans as a result of eating red meat and milk products, and there is evidence that the body views it as an invader.
Eating these foods could trigger inflammation and, over the long term, heart disease, certain cancers and auto-immune illnesses. Prof Varki stresses, however, that “we have not proven any link to disease, just suggested that it is something to explore”.
This sialic acid plays a number of roles: it helps us recognise cells and helps cells stick together (this stickiness is also exploited by microbes, which latch on to the sugary molecule to invade our cells). It also helps regulate our immune response, which may influence the progression of diseases and even play a part in human evolution. (…read more. Thanks, Eve!)